Contempt opens Friday in select theaters
Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt is a sturdy, lucid film with a clarity of narrative, performance and camera work—created a mere three years into what has become the most formidable career in the history of cinema, forged on a body of work made up exclusively of movies about movies. It is the scientifically expressionistic study of the splintering marriage between a screenwriter (an effortless Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife (Brigitte Bardot), told in a practical manner that fuses Godard's obsession with cinema about itself with a formalistic precision perfect for the proceedings.
The immaculate succession of images that makes up Contempt can hardly contain itself—frames crackle with the intensity of palette, enhanced to no small degree by Bardot. But there is a simultaneous, surprising immediacy to the film, seemingly at odds with its aesthetic otherworldliness. In a bedroom scene, colors change every minute or so. Quick flashbacks to previous scenes jar otherwise languid moments. Music doesn't fade in and out, but cuts suddenly within scenes, sending the movie into abrupt silence for a few arbitrary moments before the score resumes, just as abruptly as it was cut. Even diegetic sound is subject to directorial intervention: The song of a girl on stage is cut in and out so that we can hear dialogue in the audience. Combined with the film's occasional goofiness—Jack Palance strutting back and forth delivering self-important speeches, Piccoli opening a door that already has a hole big enough to walk through—it brings Contempt's sustained intensity of imagery down to earth.
The film's centerpiece is a marathon conversation between Paul and Camille in their house, as they bicker back and forth, without ever changing facial expressions and only slightly raising their voices. The camera movement—slowly back and forth, back and forth—sways you into hypnosis. Godard uses this movement to achieve a similar affect that Antonioni gets from long takes and scene structure in his masterpiece of malaise (L'Avventura, see this week's 8 Days a Week): He achieves an inner feeling of tedium with vivid images, the tension between a clear conflict and the vague but nagging nausea over the fact that it will go nowhere, that it was doomed from the start.
Contempt is a masterpiece in a palpable, self-conscious way, with Godard exerting a visible degree of control over every element of the film, giving his characters nowhere to move but where he lets them. Camera movements have a planned inelasticity about them, always from tracked dollies. The camera lands in exactly the right spot for the actor to stand in before he gets there, giving Contempt an eerie feel of fatalism.
At the beginning of Contempt, Godard quotes Andre Bazin saying that cinema is better than real life, that it is the real world as we imagine it, a sublime idea. In what could be considered an earthy paraphrase much later in the film, Piccoli says that in real life, a girl wears a skirt, but in the movies, you get to see her ass. Contempt is a movie about boredom, disgust and impatience told in the heightened language of vivid imagery. And you get to see Bardot's ass.